The PACE mission is to serve as a “philanthropic laboratory for funders seeking to maximize their impact on democracy and civic life in America.” PACE member John Esterle of The Whitman Institute, along with Malka Kopell and Palma Strand of the non-profit Civity, speaks directly to this mission in “It’s All About Relationships: Systems-Based Changemaking.”
Esterle, Kopell, and Strand highlight the systemic nature of current intractable challenges such as COVID, racism, and political polarization. Understanding our society, our democracy, and our civic life as complex adaptive systems provides new insights into how change can happen.
Relationships are the interactions that drive complex adaptive systems — the energy that animates them. Relational change can begin anywhere in the system. Leadership and initiative are de-centered.
Investing in relationships, according to Esterle, Kopell, and Strand, “is a systems-savvy strategy” because “building relationships — relationships of respect and empathy — has the capacity to neutralize the relationships of exploitation, marginalization, and oppression that lie at the core of our social challenges.”
Influencing systems, rather than attempting to control them, calls funders to a new and promising approach to maximizing impact on democracy and civic life. This approach calls for directly investing in relationships, engaging relationally with grantees, and partnering with grantees in the enterprise of joint learning and growth.
We are coming to the end of 2020 — a year that has rocked America. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed over 250,000 Americans to date and brought our economy to its knees. The violent and visible death of George Floyd, coming on top of the deaths of so many other Black members of our society, sparked protests in communities from one end of the country to another. A national election wrapped in unprecedented levels of polarization evoked fears about our democracy.
At this moment of inflection and of reflection, we are called to look forward to the challenges and changes that lie ahead for us as a nation and as a society.
Each of the ground-shaking issues described above is systemic in nature. The COVID-19 virus thrives on “community spread.” Racism is baked into our institutions, our policies, and our economy. Political polarization has eroded trust in our electoral practices and all three branches of our national government.
Systems challenges call for systems responses. The systems imperative extends to all of our institutions: government, business, the non-profit sector — and philanthropy.
And systems responses, counterintuitively, grow from relational roots.
It’s Still About Relationships
Seven years ago, we co-authored “From the Kids’ Table to the Adults’ Table,” which called philanthropy to put personal relationships at the center of its work. Our shared experience made clear that foundations were too often failing to see the creation of relationships as a tangible outcome, of relationships themselves as evidence of impact. Funding to resource processes that intentionally build and sustain authentic relationships in a variety of contexts was hard to find — to the detriment of progress on a host of pressing problems. We highlighted how personal relationships, particularly relationships of trust and empathy, are essential goals for philanthropy because those relationships are essential for positive community outcomes.
Growing awareness that we live in a world of complex adaptive systems (CAS) — a new and exciting frontier for the sciences and for philanthropy — has underscored the foundational role of relationships. In a world of complexity and uncertainty, we are striving both to dismantle systemic injustice and to build social resilience. As actors within complex adaptive social systems, being intentional about how we engage with each other relationally is a necessity — not a luxury.
Complex Adaptive Systems: The New Reality
To address any kind of problem, it is essential to have a clear understanding of what causes the problem in the first place: You can’t fix something if you don’t know why it’s broken. To address problems in society, we need a description of the world that accurately reflects and frames reality. That frame is the complex adaptive system.
Complex adaptive systems are systems of interacting individuals in which the characteristics of the system emerge from those interactions. Complex adaptive social systems, in which the interacting individuals are people, include families and other groups, organizations and institutions, cities and regions, nations and other global polities. How we interact with each other — how we relate to each other — makes the collective what it is. The system is not outside of us, encompassing us; instead the system is us.
One hallmark of complex adaptive systems is their de-centered non-linearity. That they are de-centered means that change can begin anywhere — or anywheres. That they are non-linear means that there is no direct, predictable link between input and output. De-centered non-linearity departs dramatically from top-down, command-and-control, direct cause-and-effect mechanistic and hierarchical organizational paradigms.
Rob Ricigliano is the Systems & Complexity coach at The Omidyar Group (TOG). He supports TOG’s social impact teams in integrating a complex adaptive systems approach into their work. In a recent blog post, Ricigliano describes how awareness of CAS leads to greater humility for organizations seeking to address complex challenges: “Systems don’t get solved or stay changed. A more accurate description of this work is to ‘support shifting complex human-environmental systems so that they produce healthier outcomes for those in that system, by those living in that system.’”
The Role of Relationships in Complex Adaptive Systems
Personal relationships lie at the heart and are the drivers of complex adaptive social systems. Relationships are the way that we as humans interact. Moreover, personal relationships determine the quality of resilience that characterizes a system’s capacity to adapt. Relationships in which people can learn about, acknowledge, and harness the contributions of each other enable social systems to tap into their own diversity, which means that information circulates and contributes to system-level learning, growth, and ultimately resilience. Conversely, relationships of exploitation and oppression stymie communication, collaboration, and creativity.
Toby Lowe is a Visiting Professor in Public Management at the Centre for Public Impact. His work recognizes the relational core of social-systems functioning.
The outcomes we care about in the world — for example, justice, thriving lives, or wellbeing — are emergent properties of complex systems. And a system is a system because it describes things (people, organizations, forces) that are in relationship to one another. Those relationships can be antagonistic or co-operative; they can be based on trust or mutual suspicion.
Lowe’s research explores in particular the quality of relationships that ground healthy social systems.
Our work with Human Learning Systems highlights that systems produce better outcomes when those relationships are characterized by trust, a willingness to continually learn from one another, and which values the perspectives of all those involved. In short, complex systems produce better outcomes when the actors in those systems are able to collaborate and coordinate effectively.
A strong and positive relational infrastructure provides communities the interpersonal resources they need to bounce back from an economic hit, an environmental disaster, or a social disruption. In most social systems, people spend most of their time with people who are like them in essential ways — in background, culture, training, and more. These bonded groups, in which people are connected by strong and close relationships, provide the intimate and supportive spaces that we need to flourish as individuals.
Yet it is the so-called “weak” ties, the less intimate relationships between people in different bonded groups — the bridging relationships — that are essential for the well-being of the whole. The bridges create enough communication and trust to defuse destructive conflict between distinct groups and to spark creative and collective responses to community, system-level stressors.
Systemic Injustice Through a Complex Adaptive Systems Lens
The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear how we, the individual members of the global human community, are physically connected. The pandemic in the United States has also made clear that the way we have organized ourselves socially and economically insulates some members of our community from the risk of contracting and dying from the disease and puts other members of our community — poor people and people of color, two groups that intersect to a disproportionate degree — on the front lines.
This very concrete manifestation of our system-ness also brought into focus the fact that the violent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmed Arbery and Breonna Taylor — along with the violent deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and so, so many others — are not isolated incidents, not “exceptions.” Rather, they are the natural result of complex adaptive social systems that are built on, embody, and reproduce racism.
How we interact, how we collectively lead our lives in relationship with each other, creates these system-level patterns. In the United States, the heart of our complex adaptive social systems — the relational drivers powering the systems-that-we-are — are relationships that categorize certain people or groups as “other” and then use that “other”-ness to exclude, marginalize, oppress, and exploit. In these interactions, members of one group do not see, do not listen to, and do not acknowledge members of another group as full and valued members of the whole. These relationships of dominance and subordination lie at the core of many of the social problems and injustices that funders strive to address: race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, class, religion, and more.
Rob Ricigliano of Omidyar highlights the importance of incorporating equity into CAS thinking: “Without facing the pre-existing societal power imbalances that may exist among them, different actors are unlikely to work in honest, trusting ways or avoid replicating the inequities that are at the core of the problems they are working to remedy.” Ricigliano refers to “deep equity,” drawing on the words of Sheryl Petty of Movement Tapestries, LLC, in “Systems Change and Deep Equity”:
Systems change actors who are not deeply doing [deep equity] work in their institutions will be perpetuating, and perhaps exacerbating, old habits that ignore how power, privilege, race, and other areas impact their ability to achieve the depth of their missions, with sustainability.
Any approach to relationship-building/deepening has to include a reckoning with the historical (recent and cumulative) impact of inequities at the individual, interpersonal, institutional AND systemic levels. Additionally, ‘equity’ is about race (especially in the United States), but it’s not only about race; it’s always intersectional. These nuances matter when building authentic, humble, deep relationships of reckoning, honor, compassion, and efficacy.
How to make these critical changes is not a new question, of course. And we acknowledge the web of aligned work and advocacy already underway that recognizes and responds to the context of complex adaptive social systems. Systems-based analysis and initiatives, however, have a way of sounding abstract and amorphous. Because the complex adaptive systems paradigm is often unfamiliar, many people can find it challenging to locate themselves and to identify strategies for action within it. We offer a story that makes more concrete what we mean by a relationships-based approach to addressing entrenched social problems within a complex adaptive systems frame.
Civity — Relationship-Based Systems Change
Palma and Malka named the concept of civity — a culture of people who deliberately engage in relationships of respect and empathy with others who are different — to bring attention, intention, and action to the crucial role of relationality in addressing systemic inequity. They created Civity the organization to seek out and support changemakers who are building this kind of relational infrastructure in their communities to reverse marginalization and othering.
A civity approach to inviting and cultivating bridging relationships for systems transformation embodies three core principles: (1) relationships are foundational; (2) connections across difference are powerful; and (3) individuals can transform communities. Through workshops, one-on-one coaching, and facilitation of relationship-building events, Civity helps organizations and community leaders build the relational infrastructure necessary to support a culture of solidarity and belonging.
Civity’s strategy for community change reflects the fact that individuals can transform communities — a recognition of the de-centeredness and non-linearity of CAS communities. Rather than building an organization, Civity seeds change in communities by supporting existing leaders in becoming more intentionally relational and more deliberate about connecting across difference with respect and empathy. Civity acts as a force multiplier, integrating relationality and an awareness of the importance of difference into work already underway to address community problems.
Civity in Practice
Civity’s CAS approach to social change allows for maximum versatility and flexibility while staying true to its three core principles. Civity has helped library leaders in Redwood City, CA create an event where human “books” are checked out by local “readers” for one-on-one conversations that create relationships across difference. Civity has supported incorporating empathy training and intentional relationality into the inclusion work of the Center for Rural Affairs in small towns and cities across Nebraska. And Civity has worked with a swelling group of government leaders, businesses, nonprofits, and faith institutions in Louisville KY to create spaces and practices to confront its racist history and move its community along a path of compassion and welcoming.
In all of its work, Civity’s touchstone is the imperative of a fundamental relationality in which people see the other, hear the other, and acknowledge the other’s belongingness. The effects of the essential cultural attitude of how people are with each other go far beyond informal interpersonal interactions. When the bedrock cultural value is that everyone is connected — every member of every social group — then institutions and policies that divide and discount become unsustainable. Instead, collective action is continuously measured according to an overarching “We All Belong” standard. Every person matters.
A complex adaptive system lens reveals that our cultural story and the social structure we live within emerge from and immerge into each other. Change in one is chicken-and-egg with change in the other. Changes in policy go hand-in-hand with cultural transformation.
TWI and Civity: A Relationship Case Study
The Whitman Institute (TWI) provided early seed funding for Civity. At the time, Civity’s emphasis on relationships in public and private life resonated with John at TWI. John was particularly intrigued by Civity’s emphasis on intentionally connecting one-on-one at an individual level with people who are different — seeing a single individual relationship as having the power to create ripples within a larger system.
From the point of view of Malka and Palma, the financial support to Civity from TWI provided key “startup” seed funding. The TWI connection also provided something else just as important: the relationship with John. With financial support, Malka and Palma were able to engage in a careful and rigorous process of developing and honing the relational training experience that lies at the core of their work with communities and leaders. Even more valuable, John became a thought partner, engaging relationally with them and with the civity concept. John’s perspective and questions stimulated Malka and Palma’s learning. His trust in them strengthened their own commitment to the civity work. This relationship has remained vibrant and valuable even after the sunset of TWI’s financial support for Civity.
Systems-Based Social Changemaking and Philanthropy: Building Relational Infrastructure of Respect and Empathy
TWI has also been a long-time member of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), “a member-centric philanthropic laboratory for funders seeking to maximize their impact on democracy and civic life in the United States.” One area of inquiry that PACE continues to explore is the power of relationships, particularly bridging across difference, to shape our civic life and our democracy. A recent PACE initiative, Faith In/And Democracy, aims to explore the role faith plays in strengthening democracy and civic life. Noting that 77% of Americans claim some form of religious identity and that faith communities offer opportunities to practice shared values and build relationships resulting in greater overall cohesion in communities, PACE is learning that faith can be — and in many cases, is — used as a powerful tool for bridging in service of building a multi-racial and pluralistic democracy and a healthy civic fabric.
PACE is also supporting philanthropy’s efforts to transform the upheaval of 2020 into a space to imagine new future states of what “could be” across many areas of civic life by hosting a series of Imagination Sprints. PACE recently hosted two of its Imagination Sprints on topics focused on relationships: imagining trusted relationships in a diverse and pluralistic society and imagining relationship infrastructure as central to crisis response. Both Sprints unearthed hidden assumptions, sparked important insights, and gave oxygen to new and imaginative ideas for how we might better be in relationship with one another.
Reflections from three PACE members highlight how individual foundations are helping open up imaginative spaces within philanthropy for what “could be” when it comes to relational work and systems change.
Angela Graham, Director of Southwest Michigan Strategies at the Fetzer Institute, notes:
The Fetzer Institute’s work is grounded in a belief in our fundamental interconnectedness. With a mission to help build the spiritual foundation for a loving world, it is in our DNA to start from a place of honoring the sacredness to be found in each of us. Our work is relationship-centered: we engage at the heart level to listen, learn, and inform the work we do together with partners and as a staff. Developing these deep and trusting relationships takes time, but the benefits extend far beyond the programmatic level and can be truly enriching.
Jonathan Gruber, Strategy Lead, Building, at Einhorn Collaborative, describes how relational work is central to their mission and approach:
The focus of our work at Einhorn Collaborative is to help people build stronger relationships, embrace our differences, and rediscover our shared humanity. These aren’t “nice-to-have,” tangential goals. We believe we cannot solve our most urgent challenges together — whether at the national level or in communities — unless we see, hear, and understand each other first.
What is notable about Einhorn Collaborative is their advocacy and organizing within philanthropy for explicitly valuing, resourcing, and researching relationship-building. Gruber explains:
Through our Building strategy, we’re trying to build the case for relational work by amplifying the science, stories, and practical tools around what it looks like to elevate human connection and shared humanity. This requires upending narratives in our culture that reinforce just the opposite. We’re also partnering with a cross-ideological group of peer funders and leaders to build the field of pluralism and bridging divides. This work is in large part about spreading the relational values, mindsets, skills, and norms we need to finding common ground and thrive together in our increasingly diverse, divided society.
Central to the process of creating new cultural narratives is linking those narratives to community-based work that embodies equity and intersectionality within a systems framework. Kara Inae Carlisle, Vice President of Programs at the McKnight Foundation, offers a concrete example of this approach:
We deliberately engaged in broad community discourse to create McKnight’s new Vibrant & Equitable Communities (V&EC) program. We seek systemic change, which naturally requires the creativity, experiences, and participation of every part of the system. The social sector understands this notion — we talk about it a lot. However, because of the power imbalances built into who has resources and access to formal leadership, the sector has difficulty putting it into practice.
For foundations, translating awareness into action requires intentionality, as well as a commitment to experimenting, learning, and adapting:
McKnight intentionally moved into a participatory space to develop the V&EC program. Many different community partners’ insights and perspectives shaped the program, and we will continue to draw on them as it evolves. While still in the early stages of this approach, we have experienced its power and are committed to building it into our work foundation wide.
A Paradigm Shift
For decades, philanthropy has been eager to move forward in addressing society’s big issues: systemic racism, economic inequity, increasing effects of climate change, global disease, food insecurity. We care about these issues, and yet we also bring to them the same paradigms of control and linearity from which they arise. By focusing on linear cause-and-effect and on controlling and assessing direct and mostly immediate effects, philanthropy adheres to an outdated paradigm of control — control that is, fundamentally, an illusion. The illusion of control arises from a denial of the nature of deep social challenges as emergent patterns of complex adaptive social systems.
It is a substantial departure from our prevailing culture to not only acknowledge the unwisdom of control but to accept the impossibility of control. To move from the comforting predictability of linearity to the uncertain possibilities of non-linearity. To relinquish a top-down hierarchical view of power and embrace de-centered “anyone and anywhere in the system” empowerment.
What helps break down the cognitive dissonance between the CAS quality of the challenges we face and the mechanistic approaches we cling to? What helps us see the fundamental contradiction at the core of many of our efforts for social transformation? How can we shift from control to — in the words of systems pioneer Donella Meadows — “dancing with the system”? Relationships are the key.
It is a tectonic shift to recognize the centrality of relationships to the complex-adaptive-social-system challenges we face. To recognize the centrality of relationships in imagining and transforming current social systems. To invest — yes, invest — in relationships. To invest in relationships because building relationships — relationships of respect and empathy that have the capacity to neutralize the relationships of exploitation, marginalization, and oppression that lie at the core of our social challenges — is a systems-savvy strategy.
We acknowledge the discomfort that funders may feel in addressing “hard” problems with “soft” strategies centered on relationship-building. Relationships call us to engage our hearts as well as our heads. Relationships highlight the importance of connection as well as autonomy. Relationships can feel amorphous rather than rigorous. And relationships take time.
While relationships are now frequently acknowledged as important, relationship-building is still a tough sell in grant proposals, as a measure of impact, and for financial support. Strategies and programs that focus on how we think and feel and communicate with each other don’t fit into the usual boxes and categories, and the crucial work of creating the relational infrastructure that undergirds systems change remains under-valued and under-resourced in relation to its transformative potential.
The Promise of Relationship-Based Systems Philanthropy
Funders are in a position to be nimble, to take risks, to be at the forefront of learning what systems-based changemaking looks like, what it takes, how to maximize influence for good. Funders are in a position to take the leap in re-imagining how to take on intractable social issues and how to rebuild social structures and institutions. The core lesson of complex adaptive systems is that interactions between individuals are the essence, the heart, from which everything else emerges. Relationships drive the system.
We highlight three specific ways in which philanthropy’s pivot to a relationship-based complex-adaptive-social-systems approach to supporting grantees can further shared goals of solidarity and justice. First, funders can invest directly in relationship-building in communities and organizations, especially in the kind of relationships that create resilient relational infrastructure — bridging relationships that level power differences and bring people together as fellow travelers. Creating space and time for these relationships to grow allows what John Paul Lederach refers to as the “critical yeast” — people who are “not like-minded and not like-situated” — to connect and to become the rising agent(s) for social change. This organic metaphor captures the self-organizing CAS dynamic of human communities.
Second, funders can transform their own relationships with grantees, moving away from control and toward partnership. John’s initial commitment as a funder was to approach grantmaking as partnering in a spirit of service. This meant providing unrestricted funding over time, streamlining paperwork, providing support beyond the check, and being in relationship with the people and organizations that TWI supported financially. TWI’s advocacy for this type of funding eventually led to the launch of the Trust Based Philanthropy (TBP) Project as a “collaborative, five-year peer-to-peer funder initiative to address the power imbalances between foundations and nonprofits.” By proactively ceding power and control and by building trusting relationships both internally and externally, foundations practicing TBP or other aligned approaches help create a more equitable, trust-based, nonprofit ecosystem.
Third, funders can enter into their work in a spirit of learning and growth that views measures of impact through the lens of complexity. This lens embodies humility, rethinks attribution, and recognizes that creating social change is a collective enterprise; concepts, ideas, and creativity come from all parts of the system, particularly from those most directly experiencing the problems and challenges at hand. CAS awareness reminds us that communities and societies thrive by being able to adapt and by learning as a system, which draws from learning and discovery within and throughout. Philanthropy is well-situated to frame or to recognize vital questions; to invest in an eclectic and even surprising range of learners and learning enterprises; and to take on the role of championing social creativity and imagination. Accountability can take the form of sharing “what have we learned?”
More generally, philanthropy as a sector can take a leadership role in connecting and convening. Individual funders are already in relationship with a wide spectrum of organizations, leaders, and community members across different sectors. But people from different points along that spectrum often don’t have the time or resources to get to know each other and participate in the kind of dialogue and reflection that facilitates system-level learning and adaptation to internal and external stressors. Funders, especially by working collaboratively, can bring a systemic viewpoint (either place-based or issue-based) that uniquely positions them to really help — but only if they prioritize building, maintaining, and strengthening that relational infrastructure over time.
For us as a society, as funders, as people working to make our communities stronger, more resilient, and more just — the paradigm shift to understanding our societies as complex adaptive systems is a challenge — and an imperative. Yet a deep understanding of systems themselves shows us the way. In complex adaptive systems, the macro emerges from the micro, and it is the interactions between and among individuals that drive small- and then medium- and then large-scale transformation.
It’s all about relationships.
It’s all about relationships.
It’s all about relationships …
Authors listed in alphabetical order by last name.
A strong advocate of Trust-Based Philanthropy, John Esterle is the Co-Executive Director and a Trustee of The Whitman Institute, which works to advance social, political, and economic equity by funding dialogue, relationship building, and inclusive leadership. John led TWI’s transition from an operating to a grantmaking foundation in 2004 and its decision to sunset the foundation in 2022. A past board president of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, John has also served on the boards of The Germanacos Foundation, LeaderSpring, and Images and Voices of Hope. Currently, he is an advisory board member for a number of nonprofits, including Active Voice, The Beat Within, and Civity. He received his B.A. in Liberal Arts from the Hutchins School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Sonoma State University and his M.A. in Broadcast Communication Arts from San Francisco State University.
Malka Ranjana Kopell is Co-Founder and CEO of Civity (www.civity.org), a national nonprofit organization focused on fostering relationships of respect and empathy across divides of race, class and culture. Civity supports community leaders, organizations and institutions that recognize first-hand the need for people to have a more inclusive understanding of who belongs to their community. Civity works primarily through (1) training/skill-building/practice in connecting through difference and (2) communicating a story of connection to counter the story of division that often prevails today.
Malka has more than 30 years’ experience helping people work together in community. In 1990 she founded the consulting organization Community Focus to facilitate more effective implementation of public policies by increasing community participation. She also served as a program officer for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, developing and managing grants in the areas of conflict resolution and civic engagement. Malka was the founding managing director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University, and is currently a senior mediator/facilitator with the Program on Consensus and Collaboration at California State University, Sacramento.
Malka holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University.
Palma Joy Strand is Co-Founder and Research Director of Civity (www.civity.org), (description in Malka Rajana Kopell bio above). Palma partnered in developing, piloting, and facilitating the trainings, workshops, and one-on-one coaching through which Civity provides community leaders with the skills and practice in intentional relationship-building across social divides with a particular focus on race, class, and country of origin. In addition, she is a content developer and lead facilitator with Conversations About Race and Belonging, which give people grounding and practice in talking person-to-person about race and racism. She has engaged in extensive research on the institutional aspects of systemic racism, with a particular focus on housing and racial wealth disparities, and she presents this work to legal and academic audiences, community organizations, legislative bodies, businesses, and foundations.
Palma’s work combines a wealth of experience as a community member with legal and institutional expertise and a background in conflict engagement. In addition to a BS from Stanford University, she holds a JD from Stanford Law School and an LLM in Alternative Dispute Resolution and Legal Problem-Solving from the Georgetown University Law Center. She is a tenured Professor of Law in the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program in Creighton University’s Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, where she is also the Director of Creighton’s 2040 Initiative, which convenes conversations on the political and social effects of long-term demographic shifts. At Creighton, she teaches classes in facilitation, leadership, conflict engagement, structural injustice, and organizing for justice and solidarity.